Many South Africans are considering leaving the country. However, of those who actively start the process, only a fraction sees it through. Not everyone has the desire, the financial means or even the opportunity to do so. Likewise, should the emigration process fail, the funds and even an opportunity to return, may not be forthcoming. This can turn into an expensive excursion. It is therefore wise to be as realistic as possible about your expectations: not only regarding the destination but also about yourself.
While the decision to emigrate is often framed in economic terms, the emotional aspects thereof receive less attention. 1 Quitting your job (if you had one), selling your home, storing some precious belongings after selling the rest, and leaving loved ones behind, all form part of the cumbersome process. Though the physical travel itself may be light, the emotional weight of emigration should not be underestimated, and may be too daunting for some.
The decision to emigrate often follows an important crossroad in people’s lives, with lasting consequences for the decision-maker and people affected by these decisions. Apart from dealing with endless formalities (like obtaining visas and securing a residence), the emotional barriers can be even more challenging. Despite these obstacles, a significant number of people still decide to take the giant leap to emigrate, often with disastrous consequences.
Emigration is a life-changing experience that involves a purposeful decision to part with an established lifestyle and a known environment. It is a major decision. While the purpose of this article is not intended to convince people to stay or to go, it rather serves to support an informed decision – whatever that may be.
Why do people emigrate?
There is no single reason why people emigrate. Rather, it seems to be a complex interaction of multiple factors. South Africans are increasingly driven by lingering issues in the country, such as the uncertain political climate, violent crime, lack of employment opportunities, increasingly deteriorating infrastructure, and endemic corruption. Although these socio-economic and political drivers of emigration are well documented, it does not fully account for the desire to emigrate. This phenomenon is multi-layered and requires a holisticapproach.
Crucial to this perspective are our personality traits. The decision to emigrate is often prompted by the psychological attributes of the decision-maker. Although the research by Boneva & Frieze confirms personality traits to be a useful indicator of the potential success of the migration journey, such factors are often overlooked, with a pragmatic approach instead receiving more preference. In their study, Boneva and Frieze 2 devised the concept of a “migrant personality”, which presumes that emigrants have personality traits that differ from people who decide to stay.
The five-factor model of personality
Do people who voluntarily choose to leave their country of origin have different personality traits from those who decide to stay? According to Boneva and Frieze, this is indeed the case. Although this does not imply that all emigrants necessarily have the same personalities, they do seem to share a pattern of personality traits that can be used to predict their likelihood to venture into new and unfamiliar territories, such as resettling in a new country. In this regard, emigrants often tend to be diligent, have high ambitions, and a weaker bond to family and friends.
The “big five of personality traits” is a model that is widely recognised by psychologists and that identifies five broad dimensions of personalities: a tendency to be open to new experiences, to be conscientious, to have an extraverted personality, to be self-aware, to be agreeable, and to be neurotic. An individual’s personality is the expression of the dynamic interaction of all these traits. Personality traits dictate how an individual thinks, feels and behaves in situations and tends to be consistent over time. Each trait functions on a continuum with its opposing trait representing the opposite end of the scale.
Personality traits and emigration
Research suggests that personality traits can provide clues to the possible success of the emigration journey. While certain personality traits make some people more likely to emigrate, other personality traits make some individuals more likely to stay.
1. To be open to new experiences
Open-minded individuals tend to be more adventurous. They have a tolerance for diversity, a positive mindset regarding complex situations, a broad range of interests, and are more likely to be creative. They are often curious about the world and other people, are eager to learn, and enjoy new experiences. Open-minded individuals also tend to be more adaptable to the challenges that accompany the lengthy and complex emigration process.
Unsurprisingly, a tendency to be open to new experiences is considered the main factor linked to the decision to emigrate. People who tend to be more open-minded are usually on the hunt for new challenges and will exert a lot of energy in those efforts. Emigration presents much novelty in terms of location, social networks and culture, and these factors are usually favoured by open-minded individuals.
People with a high level of extraversion have an energetic approach to life and are often sociable and assertive. Such people are generally more talkative, adventurous and emotionally expressive. Being around others helps them feel energised and excited. Emigration is inherently a bold move where a person must often socialise with complete strangers. Extraversion therefore plays an important role in emigration. Being optimistic usually makes extraverts more confident that they will be successful in a new location. Extroverts and those open to new experiences are more likely to uproot and resettle in a new country.
3. To be agreeable
People who are agreeable are often kind and cooperative with a tendency to prioritise the well-being of others. Agreeable individuals tend to internalise the values and norms of their local community, and it is possible that such individuals may value the well-being of their local community over leaving it all behind. As they have a strong need to connect with people they know, they may therefore be less motivated to move to another country.
Conscientiousness is characterised by qualities such as responsibility, dependability, self-discipline, and duty. As predictability and order are important to them, conscientious people may perceive the psychological costs of emigration to be too high. It may be possible that people who are both agreeable and conscientious are less likely to emigrate and are more inclined to stick to familiar routines and commitments. They are usually also more content in their present environment and less likely to take risks and make major changes in their lives.
People who are neurotic often experience negative emotions such as anxiety, fear, sadness, and guilt, and are more prone to emotional instability. They are often described as sensitive, anxious, moody, and easily stressed. This can make the process of adjusting to a new environment and culture more of a challenge. In contrast, individuals who are less neurotic are generally more emotionally stable, which can ease the process of adapting to the challenges that accompany emigration.
To be uprooted and relocated in an unknown environment comes at significant social, psychological, economic and cultural costs. For some, emigration is a liberating and positive experience. Yet others experience a profound sense of being emotionally uprooted, causing feelings of loss and pain. One may be confronted with the nagging question: “Am I doing the right thing?” Such a life-changing decision therefore often leads to individuals doubting themselves.
The decision to emigrate and managing the emigration process requires a good understanding of your personality traits. A person’s position on the continuum of each of these five traits can indicate their likelihood to embark on the emigration journey and the possible chances of success. These characteristics can also project emotional reactions to new situations. It should however be noted that we all possess these five characteristics to some degree or another. Therefore, a decision to stay does not make you less ambitious, less diligent, or less willing to take on new challenges. It does, however, suggest that should you pursue the journey, being adaptable and extroverted may ease the process.
By carefully considering your reasons for wanting to emigrate and by being clear and realistic about your expectations, one can embark on this journey with less disillusionment. In this regard, seeking advice from professionals or researching the country you are considering emigrating to will ensure that your decision is aligned with your motives and priorities. Introspection can ground you when the psychological challenges of the process become overwhelming. By knowing yourself, you can reduce the weight of any emotional baggage and be better prepared for any uncertainties that may be heading your way.
It is indeed not a decision that should be taken lightly.